Archive for Thursday, September 14, 2006

Temporary job path to career for city planner

September 14, 2006

Every weekday, two or three people wander into Kim Buttrum's office in De Soto City Hall as the first step to a dream.

Buttrum is the city's planning director. Whether it be a new subdivision, a proposed new office suite, or a lot spilt so a son or daughter can build next to a parent's house, her office is the in box for development in the city.

It is not the career Buttrum envisioned when she started working for the city in April 2002. She took what had been her mother's (Jane Gordanier) job with the city after expect ing to follow in the footsteps of her father, a longtime employee of Sprint.

With that career path in mind, Buttrum got a degree in telecommunications from DeVry University. She graduated just as the mass layoffs at Sprint flooded the market with experienced telecommunications professionals.

It was time to readjust.

"My mom had to quit because of health reasons," Buttrum said. "Quite honestly I thought, 'I'll go ahead and take her job until I find something better.'"

What Buttrum found was a career, although that wasn't apparent at the start. Buttrum and city engineer Mike Brungardt said the position was viewed as somewhat a secretarial position at the beginning, and it might have continued that way had Buttrum not insisted she could and should do more.

With that, other tasks started to be added to the envelope stuffing or phone answering duties typical of an administrative assistant.

Buttrum said her inspiration was Sean Ackerson, who served as De Soto's contract planning consultant at the time and with whom she remains friends. With his encouragement, Buttrum starting working on her master's degree in planning at Kansas University.

"Four years ago, I decided, 'I like this job; I'd like to be the one making the change,'" she said. "That's deceptive. There's no way I'm making change, but I am influential in the decision-making process. That can be a really neat thing."

Last year, De Soto City Council members put more responsibility in Buttrum's hands when they decided not to renew the city's contract with Patty Banks and Associates, which had provided contract planning services.

Her job title remained planning coordinator, but Buttrum started writing reports and making presentations and recommendations to the De Soto Planning Commission and council. Her professional transformation was completed with her promotion to planning director in June. She expects to complete the one class she needs to finish her master's next spring.

"What I like best about my job is ownership of all the responsibilities," she said. "It's fulfilling to be involved from an idea to seeing it in the ground."

Those who find their way to her office bring varying degrees of expertise, Buttrum said. They may be ordinary citizens with ideas or developers experienced with the planning process in De Soto or other cities. But even the experienced come with questions.

She and Brungardt are usually available to provide answers about city regulations, utilities and possible incentives, Buttrum said. They also point out potential problems and even give an assessment of how the De Soto planning commissioners and city council members might receive the project, she said.

"They have thousands of dollars tied up in the plan. They have contracts pending so they need us to be very forthcoming with our opinions," she said.

The goal is not to promote every idea that finds its way to her office, Buttrum said.

"Our function, besides informing people, is to discourage people from doing something that isn't in the best interest of the community," she said.

Should a developer follow up on that initial meeting, Buttrum said city staff would help them refine the proposal in a process that includes a pre-development conference.

Buttrum and Brungardt would be present at the conference, which -- depending on the scope --could also draw City Attorney Patrick Reavey and City Administrator Pat Guilfoyle

"We provide a report to them," she said. "We give them a chance to revise even before going to the planning commission."

Before getting a date with the planning commission, a developer -- big or small --must make formal application, be it for rezoning, preliminary plat, or a site plan for commercial development.

Working with the planning commission is rewarding, Buttrum said. Far from being a rubber stamp of staff recommendations, the lawyers, engineers and an architect who sit on the commission want answers, she said.

"We're lucky to have a planning commission with such varied backgrounds," Buttrum said. "They're very demanding and challenge us to back up our recommendations."

The most demanding is De Soto Planning Commission Chairman Kevin Honomichl, Buttrum said. She praised his ability to allow all views to be aired while keeping focused on the process.

The other important part of the planning process is public participation, Buttrum said.

De Soto city regulations require public hearings for rezoning, variances and special use permits, but the planning commission and city council will let people speak during other steps in the planning process.

"If there's one thing I've learned, it is that people have the power," she said. "I've seen good projects derailed and bad projects improved through that power."

To further encourage public input, the city is considering amending its regulations to send letters to neighboring property owners before the planning commission considers preliminary plats.

The application process is just one aspect of her job, Buttrum said. She also helps with the constant amendments to the city's zoning and subdivision regulations and keeps busy with a host of day-to-day duties from collecting planning fees to the envelope stuffing that filled her first days.

Buttrum's most high-profile assignment came this spring with the update of the city's land use plan for a large area south and west of the city. The process included two formal public hearings and other opportunities for public comment as the city colored in the map for what is thought will be De Soto's future growth area.

"It was my big accomplishment to date," she said

But likely not her last.

"I couldn't imagine doing anything else," Buttrum said. "That's a difficult thing to say this day and age, but I expect to be a planner my entire career."

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